- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — House Speaker Michael E. Busch has flip-flopped so often on authorizing slot machines in Maryland that lawmakers and strategists say they no longer know where he stands on the issue.

“I don’t think the speaker is serious about letting us vote for a slots bill because of the mixed messages sent out by him,” said Delegate Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat who supports slots.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, has opposed bringing legalized slots gambling to Maryland since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, introduced the proposal in the 2003 General Assembly. The speaker has lead the defeat of the plan in the House Ways and Means Committee for two straight years.

Along the way, Mr. Busch occasionally has adjusted his position, including his indication late in this year’s General Assembly session that he would consider approving the slots proposal if the Ehrlich administration agreed to increases in the state sales and income taxes.

However, lawmakers, strategists and many Democrats are confounded by his position, particularly after the revelation that Mr. Busch privately discussed the slots issue this month with Mr. Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat.

Mr. Busch emerged from the meeting saying he would agree to allow voters to decide on slots in a November referendum.

“We don’t know what the speaker is doing at this point,” said Delegate Marshall T. Goodwin, a Baltimore Democrat and Ways and Means Committee member. “It is the best-kept secret in town.”

“He has been all over the map for the last two years,” said KevinIgoe, a Republican strategist.”He was morally opposed to slots after the first session. He was in favor of state ownership, then maybe not at the tracks. And now maybe a referendum.”

Thirteen Democratic Delegates have sent a letter to Mr. Busch objecting to his change in position.

The lawmakers said they were “surprised and alarmed” that the issue had resurfaced and that they feared the gambling industry would buy a referendum victory.

A poll conducted in March by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies showed 54 percent of Marylanders favor the introduction of slots gambling.

Mr. Busch has said little publicly about the recent meetings, except that a referendum could help lawmakers craft a slots proposal free of legislative compromises.

He has told reporters that it would be easier to increase taxes than to set up slots emporiums.

Still, such a compromise appears a long way off.

Mr. Busch has said negotiations will not proceed until Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Miller agree to the referendum.

The governor opposes a referendum. He wants lawmakers to approve legislation that he already has submitted.

He says revenue from slots will help pay for the $1.3 billion education reform legislation known as the Thornton Act and help reduce the state’s budget deficit.

Mr. Miller, who has supported the slots proposal and helped it pass in the House, also does not favor a referendum.

Mr. Goodwin does not think Mr. Busch is waffling. “I believe that he is trying to position himself to benefit the Democratic Party within the House of Delegates,” he said.

Mr. Igoe disagreed.

“It is very difficult to negotiate with someone who doesn’t know what [his] position is,” he said. “And I think you are seeing that frustration bubbling over in the House Democratic Caucus.”

Other political observers say Mr. Busch could be changing his position because the Ehrlich administration repeatedly has blamed him for blocking the slots legislation.

Mr. Fulton said: “I am confused. If we are going to consider slots, then let us go ahead and take the vote and put this thing behind us. No matter which side of this issue that you are on, we should be given the opportunity to vote on the issue.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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